Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Chargaux

While on a lunch break from her office job in Boston four years ago, Margaux Whitney came upon Jasmin “Charly” Charles playing her violin in Copley Square. Whitney, herself a violist who had started out on violin, struck up a conversation. The exchange, recalled Charles, was “like fire.” The two exchanged numbers and busked together the next day, immediately drawing attention from passerby. “The moment we met, people were offering us jobs to come play for their fashion show, or to do their private event,” said Charles. “They assumed we were together, so we assumed that's what it was supposed to be.” It didn’t hurt, she said, that fate had also managed to have them both wear size eight shoes.

Since then, the two women have channeled their mutual passions for music, visual art, and fashion into the sensory-rich duo Chargaux. Now based in New York, Chargaux pairs classical instrumentation with hip-hop, pop, and electronic music, creating a sound that’s as inventive and fresh as their ever-changing hairstyles and eclectic outfits. They are, to say the least, not your grandma’s Beethoven.

We recently caught up with the two musicians by phone, and chatted about musical experimentation, Charles’s experience with synesthesia, and why they believe so strongly in arts education.

NEA: You were both trained classically. When did you begin experimenting with style?

CHARLES: Individually, I experimented the day I picked up the violin. I would read the music, and then I wanted to play the music on another string. The fact that my classical, private teacher had me learning bluegrass—that was almost like being bilingual. You're playing this emotional music, and you're also playing an emotional, folk music. Those two blended together to create a lot of magic. 

WHITNEY: My experimentation started in middle school as well. I loved the classical repertoire—I've always loved classical music. I was never forced to listen to it; I was always all about it, even as a kid. So for me, that experimentation came from, "Hey, I've learned everything I can in school. What else can I do?” I grabbed together a bunch of other girls—this is in 7th grade—two other violinists, a cellist, and a violist. We started finding pieces that we weren't learning in school and playing them on our own. From there, we actually played different gigs around Detroit—that's where I'm from. So I was always open to trying things outside of the regular repertoire and exploring.

NEA: How did your styles start to change when you started performing together?

CHARLES: When the two of us met, it was like fire. We got back together within 24 hours, and we just began to make up riffs on the street. There began the experimentation. Meeting Margaux wasn't just about meeting a violist, and someone that could play another part to the music. She had a lot of her own improvisational ability and a lot of technical ability, so we could match energies really quickly. 

WHITNEY: Though we're both trained classically, we had different experiences. Charly grew up playing bluegrass music, and I was never introduced to that. I did so much chamber music and so many modern composers that I developed a very romantic style. So when we came together, I brought that romantic element—those long melodies and that intense, kind of gritty sound. She brought a very vocal element—she's able to make her violin sound like a voice. She brought the slides and different kinds of dictation that aren't necessarily traditionally classical. We each had something that the other lacked. That's how our style has evolved, from learning from each other. As we continue to create, it grows, because we're learning more as individuals and we always bring what we learn to each other.

NEA: On your website, it says that you're pioneering a "new breed of musicianship." Can you give your own definition of this new breed?

WHITNEY: We feel like we're using classical instruments in a new way. A lot of times we wonder, “Are we the only people who are writing for our instruments the way that we're writing? Are we the only people who are taking electronic elements, or taking elements of popular music, but still letting our instruments be the focal point?” We're creating music that a lot of the times people can't put into a genre. They're like, “It's kind of jazzy, it's kind of hip-hop, it's kind of classical. I don't even know what to call this; I don't know what Pandora station this would be on.” We think we must be pioneering something if it can't fit into a box. We’re taking all those years of classical training and re-appropriating them into new music that's accessible for a lot of different people. 

CHARLES: A lot of the challenges that emerging artists face is being boxed into ideas. We don't exist to prove or disprove anyone else's theory of what music should be, what performance should be. We just answer to what we naturally create, which is art. Visual art, fashion—we love everything. And we incorporate it as a full meal, a full experience. We’re not just showing up as these two waif-like women playing Mozart for you. No. When you meet Chargaux, you're going to meet our purple hair. And we're going to have a very intelligent conversation about that purple hair.

We're able to define ourselves, we're able to defend ourselves, we're able to hold down our ideas and completely explain why they make sense. So the breed of musicianship that we're exploring is not necessarily just a sound. It's also a vibrancy, it's also a frequency. This is the age of the DIY artist, so our brains work differently from Jimi Hendrix's brain. We have to worry more about the way social media works, and the way that the parallel Internet world works with our real life world. That naturally changes the shape of our brain, it changes the structure of our thought process, and it allows for a lot of creativity to exist.

NEA: You mentioned your love of fashion. How does your look relate to your sound?

CHARLES: It's all about collaging. We have a myriad of experiences that the two of us bring to each other. We have many textures, many patterns, many colors. We have silk, we have fur, we have wool, we have denim. It's a collage of a lot of different influences that are put together into one look. That goes for our sound as well. Our fashion is just a visual interpretation of what we sound like. 

NEA: You are both visual artists as well. How does that intersect with your music?

CHARLES: How does it not intersect? The two of us have been drawing ever since we were kids. Now we live in an age where we have to draw our own fliers, or we have to draw up ideas that make sense to other people. We have to use art to communicate what our music doesn't get a chance to communicate. That's why it's so important to us and our brand and our existence. Someone who may have never heard any of our music can see something that we created visually and still feel like they understand Chargaux.

NEA: Charly, you have synesthesia. How does that affect your music-making process?

CHARLES: It has an impact on my reaction to music as it's being created. Sometimes I'll say, "That sounds blue. I don't want that; I need a red sound or an orange sound." Nobody knows what I'm talking about. Color for me is an involuntary sense. It's just as natural as taste, touch, and feel. When I hear music, or when I hear any sound, there’s an aura, or there's a series of color, or there's a pattern of color that comes with it. If you give me a number with three digits, that number is three colors to me. If it's two digits, it's two colors to me. I don't know how that works. It's just the way that my mind decided to process it. That began at a very, very young age.

NEA: Do particular artists represent different colors for you?

CHARLES: When I listen to Alice Coltrane, a lot of her music is red and orange—she has a lot of Easter colors. When I listen to Miles Davis, his music sounds very dark; black, brown, stripes of gold. When I listen to Jimi Hendrix, we see these psychedelic colors that everybody paints him with. I don't see those colors, but I feel these raw reds and oranges. I feel these swells, these flowers. If you could imagine how a flower feels, that's what his music sounds like to me. So it's not just simply a color, it's also a texture. There might be 30 different versions of yellow that I might hear from something. 

NEA: What color does Chargaux's music evoke for you, or is every song different?

CHARLES: It's really purple. I think that comes out when we make a lot of the art that goes with it. There are so many purples and pinks and blues in our music. Like “Lullaby” is very blue and purple and pink. Even the video was that color. “The Lone Ranger” is McDonalds yellow and red with light brown and tans in it. All the songs we write have a palette, a simple palette that we pull from.

NEA: Margaux, does this affect your own process at all?

WHITNEY: One thing I will say is that when a note doesn't fit or when a note is out of tune, Charley will say, “Hey that note is a different color; it doesn't fit in.” And I'll go back and look at the music and see that it’s actually sharp. I think that's one way it's beneficial between the two of us, sharing that gift of hers, because she can see the errors in the music quite literally. That's a pretty cool element to have, and a different tool to work with.

NEA: I know that both of you are advocates for arts education. How did that develop?

WHITNEY: We both grew up in the public school system, and we both started our instruments there. The school I went to no longer has that [music] program. We want to interact with kids and we want to play for kids, and we want to speak with them. We've seen the effects of them seeing us play, and knowing that they have the potential to do the same thing. That's really important to us. We've taught in Jamaica, we've played at schools in the Bronx, and we're trying to play at more schools in Brooklyn. It’s something that's always on the forefront of our minds. We both benefitted from public school music programs, and it's sad that a lot of these kids don't get the same opportunity. 

CHARLES: For example, the next huge performance we have is at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in January 2016, and we have a special performance for their family program series. Children need to understand that it's cool to play music.

WHITNEY: It's cool to play an actual instrument. That requires discipline, that requires time, that's not going to happen in one day. Everyone wants everything instantly, but I want them to see the benefit of sticking with something for a long time, and how much fun it can be and how fulfilling it can be.

NEA: Can you tell me more about the benefits of arts education?

WHITNEY: You learn how to think. You're accessing a different part of your brain. You're being stimulated to recognize tone and pattern in music, and to work with other kids. You're playing in an orchestra, so your part is important, but so is the cellist's. You're learning how to work in a group of people and also maintain your individuality. That's really important. It's competitive of course, because you want to be first chair or second chair. But the overriding theme is we're all in this together; we're all working together to create this one beautiful sound. You're unified, and I think that's beautiful.

It’s also the discipline. You can't learn violin in a day. You can't learn guitar in a day, you can't learn drums in a day. It gives kids something that they can stick with, and slowly see the benefits from as they get better and better, and see their own power. If you play for a year, you're going to get better. That means you're powerful. You can develop your own skills. You can be great. That’s what I think the beauty of music education is. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

CHARLES: It's both therapeutic and very helpful for structuring and self-discipline. It's therapeutic because you are given the tools to learn how to communicate without talking. As a kid you go through so many waves of emotion—you learn what your angry side looks like, you learn what your sad side looks like, you learn about how happy you can feel. And you get to express all of these emotions through the arts. Music gave me that voice.

Also, there's only one way to play a stringed instrument: it's the right way. You can't lean forward, you can't have a crooked finger. So it makes you a very straightforward person when solving other problems or when asking yourself tough questions regarding any other life situation. It's like, am I really going to deny or ignore this problem? No, I want to get through this problem. I want to get to the next level. So what do I have to do? Correct my posture, correct my way of thinking. That's what discipline is. No one can take that from you, but you're also not born with it. 

NEA: The arts matter because...?

WHITNEY: The arts matter because they save lives. The arts matter because they are what keep people going. The arts matter because it's what unites people. They're so essential and they have to be preserved.

CHARLES: The arts matter because they’re the best way to record history. They were here first. When you want to go discover a civilization, their art is the best way you can find out about literally everything, from the way they ate to the way they felt about religion, to the way they felt about each other. You can find out intimate details, you can find out educational details. But art documents all of that. Art documents all the politics that a civilization went through, it documents eras. The easiest way to understand where you come from—where anything comes from—is through art.

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